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Governability, Borders and Urban Citizenship

The project consists of two subprojects:

Subproject I: Borders and Governability

Background, Aims and General Structure

The structure of governance in the urban areas of the Pearl River Delta has been greatly affected by the rapid urbanisation of the last two decades and by the overhaul in a number of important administrative factors, including a substantial privatisation of housing provisions, a re-organisation of the traditional socialist community-level administration, but also changes in the social structure such as an increased mobility of the population and the urbanisation of large areas of the traditional rural hinterland. As a consequence governance has become more complex and has required local governments to deal with a much more stratified population and a newly emerging structure of interests. Our research asks whether spatial patterns visible in urban space reflect a conscious attempt to classify the population and make it “more governable” under these new conditions. We find that both formal and informal social and spatial dynamics, as well as a mix of different forms of governing (from self-government to private management, to social control, to paternalist governance) are at work to define the new urban spaces.
The key argument of our research evolves around the relationship of governance and space in our specific mega urban context. We claim that the subdivision of space and the targeted application of different governance modes are used as a tool to ensure the governability of the mega urban region in the Pearl River Delta.

Our overarching aims are fourfold:

Geographically, we distinguish different spatial levels. Most of our research so far was on the local level (micro level, neighbourhood level). However, similar patterns of spatial differentiation are also found on the meso level (development zones, townships) and macro level (cities, municipalities). In the current second phase, we gradually include these levels as well. We furthermore have until now concentrated on the case of Guangzhou as the core of the mega urban region, but are now broadening the focus to neighbouring cities within the Pearl River Delta.

Most importantly, we are proceeding along a sequence of objectives leading from the observation of intra-urban boundaries and spatial segmentation to a discussion of mega urban governability. This sequence of objectives stretches from Phase 1 (2007-2008) to Phase 2 (2009-2010) and prospectively Phase 3 (2011-2012):


Governance, in our understanding, is not only what the government is doing, but the totality of political actions of all the parties involved.
A governance mode describes the relationships between the different actors and stakeholders (governing relations), the way decisions are taken (governing logic), the importance of key decision makers and the fundamental political objectives. Governance modes change over time, and they depend on the type of urban area, its history and administrative belonging.
Our concept of boundaries does not focus on national borders but pertains to the practice of inclusion, exclusion and spatial segmentation at different scales. This practice has a governance dimension, but is manifest also in physical, functional, social and mental ways. Our analysis integrates all five aspects of borders:



Analysis approach


Governance modes

Stakeholders, informality, …



Gatedness, urban form…



Interaction, flows, networks …


Socio-economic gap

Residential segregation, …

Mental / cultural

Psychological representation

Meaning of places, identities, …


Our micro-level analysis focuses on living (= housing) neighbourhoods. We have identified five differently governed and in different ways bounded neighbourhood types. Since the proliferation of commodity housing (shangpin fang, 商品房) and the privatisation of work unit housing (danwei fang, 单位房) to reform housing (fanggai fang, 房改房) are the main trends in housing development in China, the comparison of these three tells us much to understand major changes in urban governance. With migrant workers making up a considerable proportion of the Chinese urbanites, urbanised villages (chengzhong cun, 城中村) and enterpriseprovided housing (yuangong sushe, 员工宿舍) represent significant – and significantly different governance approaches within the mega city.
Social diversity is one reason for the diversity of governance approaches, but in turn the segmentation of space and different inclusion in governance processes also leads to social segregation and to different paths to urban citizenship.
Our fieldwork is characterised by a combination of bottom-up and top-down perspectives and of qualitative and quantitative methods. We went into the above-mentioned types of neighbourhoods to conduct the following research:

As a result, we classified the neighbourhood types according to key characteristics of their governance as follows:

Neighbourhood type

Governance mode

Commodity housing

Ownership-based governance

Privatised housing

Administration-oriented governance

Socialist work unit housing

Welfare-style governance

Urbanised villages

Traditional-structure-led governance

Enterprise-provided housing

Paternalistic, employment-based governance

The relevance of this classification lies in the fact that the substantial privatization of the residential environment is leading to new flexible forms of governance that affect different social groups differently. Not only social groups have access to housing of remarkably different quality but also to variable opportunities to participate in the governance of the urban space, or in the management of their own neighbourhood.

Research Team

Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou: Australian National University, Canberra:


Subproject II: Experimental Urban Governance and Conceded Informality

Project Structure

Our project team concentrates on urban planning related governance in urbanized villages in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, privatized danwei housing estates and in future additionally on one drapery district in Guangzhou, and another urbanized village in Zhuhai City as case studies to contribute to the issue of governability of mega-urban regions.

“Pioneers” – Privatized Danwei Housing Estates & Urbanized Villages

Due to the Chinese characteristics of post-hoc urban planning policy shaping after an experimental process of testing and implementation in selected pioneer sites (experiment – model – implementation), understanding the role of those pioneers and of decision-making processes within pioneer projects and sites is crucial for understanding Chinese mega-urban governance. Therefore we focus on urbanized villages and privatized danwei housing estates acting as pathfinders for successful widespread (up to national) strategies, guaranteeing as sustainable developments as possible. Besides, aspects of informality, self-organization and autonomy can best be explored in areas where they are themselves tested, evaluated and accepted/formalized or rejected/abolished.

Economic Clusters – Drapery District

This case study will be conducted by a joint team consisting of members and partners of the projects “Governability and Borders” and “Governance in Time” starting in autumn 2009. The case study represents an attempt to  bring together economic, political, social and cultural dimensions that shape the restructuring of a spatially limited and well-defined economic cluster in the context of efforts in the PRD to climb up in the value chain significantly. It may explain how global and local forces work together in reorganizing the socio-spatial embodiment of an important economic sector, the textile industry. While it is evident that a secular trend in sectoral economic change can be observed in the PRD, it is by no means clear how it materializes at the neighbourhood level. By investigating this process in detail by looking at a key example, the case study will contribute to understanding the interaction of formal and informal spheres in Southern China over time.

Main Findings and Current Focus

  1. Distinct modes of governance co-exist simultaneously differing in diverse spatial entities, with regard to development policies and considering their different fields of implementation.
  2. Informal processes and self-organization are significant distinguishing features of different governance modes. They can be subdivided into several types depending among others on implementation deficiency, strong personality, informal network structures, occupation of niches, effects of new regulations, and priority of the informal over the formal.
  3. Governance modes depend, among other factors, on the historical development, the type of urban structure, underlying vertical and horizontal administrative structures, and urban development and planning policies. They are subject to change over time and differ on different and changing spatial levels as well as on the respective and changing administrative levels.
  4. The existence of the many types of borders in the PRD can be explained from four different perspectives: Borders increase the governability of the diverse mega-urban region; cultural and historical continuity of sub-dividing internal borders exist; borders increase the governability in times of highly dynamic transitions; in the globalized context enclaved spaces emerge all over the world.
  5. Borders, bounding and spatial inclusion and exclusion have a set of specific consequences for the people involved, such as the political-administrative perspective, physical appearance, border permeability, socio-spatial implications, and psychological effects.
  6. Informality/self-organization is an integral part of the current development of the mega-urban region of the PRD. The “increase” and “decrease” of informality/self-organization has a changing character over time and is caused by urban planning and developmental policies.

Our current focus lies on further in-depth analysis of experimental urban governance:
“From point to surface” experimental urban governance as informality/self-organization allowing/supporting strategy and necessary means to clearing the way for successful progressive post-hoc policy shaping in a period of permanent transformation and transition.

China has no rule of law tradition. In the course of globalization, the permeability of formerly rigid boundaries, the emergence and convergence of global economic networks, the acceleration of processes, and shrinking spatial, cultural and economic distances, China itself is interested to integrate into the world community and therefore is forced to fulfil international expectations and to create legal certainty. This extremely difficult process of its realization and implementation is already an enormous challenge for a country. In the Chinese case it is accompanied and complicated by the dynamics and continuity of changes at all levels of politics, economics, society and culture.

The result is that the creation of a binding legal system is necessarily reactive rather than prospective, and therefore a continuum of informality, formalization and formality with changing context-dependent scaling in one direction or another, or – better – self-organization during experimentation, modelling, and legislation during implementation is to be found.

The “from point to surface”-approach the Chinese government has successfully conducted in the economic reform and opening up process for the last thirty years (see Heilmann 2008) can also be adopted to urban planning issues in the restructuring of urbanized villages and to pioneer privatized danwei housing estates pursuing sustainable modernization in the mega-urban region of the PRD. The mode is defined as "experimental urban governance” and can be described as follows:

Decentralized reform initiatives and local reform experiments that – in the case of success –result in up to nation-wide political programs, are proven tools of Chinese policy-making. The central government sets framework objectives. How these are achieved remains undefined and the actors involved enjoy a quasi-autonomous leeway to experiment under constant supervision. Experimental sites or pilot projects are officially initiated, and the way to pursue the process of effectively reaching the objectives is characterized by competition between different experimental projects and by considerable scope for development. A successful project becomes a model and serves as an example for prospective comprehensive approaches which are later implemented. Experimental projects are always subordinated to higher party and government authorities. Government institutions always have the power of intervention and final decision-making. Decisionmaking and negotiation processes at different levels are therefore characterized by creative freedom within an authoritative framework.

In the conventional Western understanding legislation is prior to implementation. In China, the mode of the testing and implementation prior to legislation stands the test of time as a practical instrument of politics in a rapidly and permanently changing, extremely heterogeneous country. The opportunity lies in the potential adaptability to manifold spatial, structural, socio-political, economic circumstances, as well as in the interaction of local and central initiatives, which contribute significantly to the success of this approach. The weakness lies in potential loss of regulatory power, increased informal activities and temporary systemic instability.

Understanding how all the factors comprised in our theory model as “structural context”, “political culture”, institutional milieu” and “political actors” are interrelated will contribute to understanding how formality-informality arrangements work and adapt over time.

Research Team

Umiversity of Kassel: